Zinke Order Opens Door To Cutting Protections For Sage Grouse To Benefit Dirty Fuels

Sagebrush ecosystem at risk from oil, gas and coal mining, threatening communities, sportsmen


Ted Zukoski, Earthjustice Attorney, (303) 641-3149 

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke today ordered the Bureau of Land Management to evaluate removing protections for the imperiled sage grouse across tens of millions of acres of public land across the American West in order to benefit the oil, gas and coal industries. 

The sage grouse is a threatened bird and icon of the West’s sweeping sagebrush landscapes. Since the early 1800s, more than half of the sage grouse’s native habitat has been destroyed, and their numbers have plummeted by 97 percent, from an estimated 16 million to less than 500,000. 

Federal wildlife biologists concluded in 2010 that energy development, and the noise, roads, and habitat destruction and fragmentation that come with it pose “a significant risk” to the sage grouse’s continued survival across its range in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and northeastern Utah. 

In 2015, BLM and the U.S. Forest Service adopted sage grouse protections in land use plans, which represent the culmination of years of collaboration between federal, state and private stakeholders. The flexible plans, supported by a bipartisan group of governors, include provisions meant to sustain and recover sage grouse population, including the designation of certain lands as “priority habitat management areas” in which activities likely to harm the sage grouse—including energy extraction and mining—may be regulated.

The order that Secretary Zinke announced he will publish tomorrow establishes a panel to embark on a 60-day review of federal and state efforts to protect sage grouse, with the intent of reducing or eliminating protections to benefit energy development.

“The Interior Department appears to be laying the groundwork to unravel the careful, flexible compromise put together following years of work,” said Earthjustice attorney Ted Zukoski, who represents conservation groups defending the current sage grouse plans from challenges in federal courts in Wyoming and Utah. “The current plans preserve sage grouse, allow significant energy development, and are supported by sound science and a bipartisan group of governors including Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead. To make any revisions, Interior will have to involve the public, biologists, the states and all stakeholders. As Interior moves forward, we’ll be there to defend the existing plans that benefit not only the grouse but the many communities, ranchers and sportsmen who rely on healthy sagebrush ecosystems across the West.”

See BLM’s sage grouse management plans for Colorado and Wyoming.

A greater sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus), near Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
A greater sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus), near Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo courtesy of Dan Dzurisin)

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